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The Art of Taxidermy

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Tags: taxidermy, squirrel, Chicago Academy of Sciences, specimens, chipmunk

Created: 6/11/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of learning the art of taxidermy, or, in layman's terms, skinning an animal and stuffing it with cotton and wire. I have to admit that I thought it would be a much more complicated process involving toxic chemicals and specialized safety equipment. In reality, all you need is a sharp knife (preferably a scalpel) and some borax. So long as you're sure to wash your hands afterwards, you don't even need gloves.

As we waited for our chipmunks to thaw, we spent some time drawing them, taking a few minutes to learn about the contours of their bodies, where their joints are, and how their fur lies. I learned two things during that time. First, I'm not very good at drawing. Second, I learned what a chipmunk really looks like: how its legs move, how the features of its head sit upon its skull, how the color patterns flow across its body. It was all quite intimate.

Chipmunk on styrofoam

After bonding with our specimens, it came time to cut into them, from thigh to thigh, right above the genitals, being careful not to cut through the thin layer of muscle separating us from the rodent's stinking bowels. This was a relief, it hadn't dawned on me that by only collecting the skin, we could leave its mess of organs tucked safely in the package nature made for them.

This was the only time we cut through the skin, the rest of the cutting we performed was done in between the skin and the muscle, delicately cutting away at the layers of connective tissue. We worked our way from that initial incision to the back knees until we could peel the skin up and over them to fit our scissors around the joint without cutting skin. Then, a bit of pressure, a quick snap, and the femur was separated from the tibia and fibula. We'd come back for those later, it was time for the really fun part. Taxidermists have a special tool for getting the tail out, it almost looks like a pair of wire cutters, but instead of cutting them, it’s designed to hold onto the bones in the tail as you slip off the bushy tail. I don't think I could describe the feeling to you. It sounds rather morbid, I'm sure, but it's really quite delightful, almost like popping the cork on a bottle of sparkling grape fruit juice as a kid on Thanksgiving. You gently apply pressure, anticipation mingled with a tinge of fear, then POP, off it goes.

Things were pretty straightforward from there to the skull, just like pulling off a sock. It was actually pretty meditative, and there were times when I had to stop and take stock of what I was doing, assuring myself that, "Yes, I really am peeling the skin of a chipmunk, and it really is this interesting." This is around the same time that the museum guests started showing up, many of them school groups. There were two facts which many of the children seemed to have difficulty holding in their heads at the same time: these are real chipmunks, and they are dead. One child, nearly at the point of holding these facts together asked, "Are you're fixing it?" Aside from the confusion, there were some wonderfully refreshing moments when a child grasped what was happening and watched with awe rather than disgust. These are the young scientists our country so desperately needs.

Group of children reacting to taxidermy demonstration

Steadily working our way up toward the head, casually chatting amongst ourselves, and enthusiastically sharing with the public what we ourselves had learned only a short while ago, it was time for the difficult part. Not only is the face the cutest part of the chipmunk, it's also the most tenaciously wrapped around the skull. The ears, eyelids, and lips can all easily be disfigured by a hand too quick to finish the job. With the help of our resident expert and trainer, we all managed to keep the cuteness intact.

At last, the skin was off, and it was on to the next stage. The hollow skin was rubbed with borax to dry it out,  and the fluffy side was turned back to face the right side. Next, wires were cut to replace the bones we had removed. One wire reaching from the tip of the nose to the end of the tail, and two reaching from the front to back paw on either side. The central wire was then wrapped in cotton and molded with twine to approximate the shape and size of the body. Because chipmunk tails are rather thin, about a third of the wire was left bare so that what we ended up with looked a bit like a popsicle. This was then gently pushed back through the incision we had made hours ago, all the way up to the adorable little face we had affectionately drawn at the start of our day. The other two wires were then set into place along the sides of the body, pushing it into the superman pose which it will hold for centuries to come.

Close up of stuffed chipmunk face

I thought the final step would be sewing it back up, but I'm glad it wasn't (partly because I found it the most difficult). The final step was "to make the specimen look good." I understand that the real reason for this is scientific, for the sake of our collections, but it allowed me to show my respect for the little critter I had just skinned. Gently combing his fur straight and using pins to get his tail and face aligned was a warm way to end what had been a day of cutting, bone breaking, and stuffing. I found it suiting that the process should begin with careful consideration of the creature in its natural form and end with time spent approximating that form. After all, a quick internet search for "bad taxidermy" might make one shudder to think how embarrassed the ancestors of those creatures would be if they were ever to gain sentience.

Dennis Baker
Volunteer

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